Data Is The Sidekick

Data is not the hero, it's the sidekick. It sounds crazy, but this small mindset shift had a huge impact on my career as a data leader.

Data people used to be back office IT support staff.

Then an HBR article came out and data people now had the sexiest job of the 21st century!

Talk about going from the bottom to the top!

It was easy to think of data people as the heroes who would change everything.

Business leaders were bought in to the vision. Dollars started flowing.

Businesses thought that they would hire these super smart data people who would just parachute in and fix all their problems.

The reality over the last 10 years has been much messier.

The thing is, data doesn't actually do anything by itself. Data is only useful when it helps someone else make a better decision or better achieve their goals.

There's a term for something like this, and it's the title of the post so it shouldn't surprise you.

Data is not the hero, it's the sidekick.

A strange misunderstanding

Our industry has found itself in a strange situation.

The business world thinks it needs data heroes, but really they need data sidekicks.

Data people are poorly playing the role of data hero when they would be amazing data sidekicks.

This situation leads to unrealistic and unmet expectations from businesses, and data people failing politically trying to play a role they should never have been cast in.

It's like we're in the awkward middle of a romantic comedy where everyone's life is a total mess, and the main characters haven't yet realized they are actually perfect for each other.

Examples of this in the wild

Benn Stancil wrote a great post a few months ago about whether data driven companies actually win. As a hypothetical investor in a new fashion company, when choosing between the following potential investments:

1) Long View - with long industry experience and deep market knowledge
2) Bolder - whose motto is moving fast and making things without overthinking strategy
3) Prodigious Daughter - Prodigy wonderkid designer starting a new company
4) Square Corner - focus on operational excellence
5) MTRX - Data will be their competitive edge

In Ben's words: "Honestly, if it’s my money, MTRX ain’t getting it." He ranked it 4th out of the five options. He obviously doesn't see data as the hero.

However, what happens if you turn MTRX into the sidekick?

To me, any of the four remaining options combined with amazing data instantly becomes the top company. That's the power of data as a sidekick.

How does this help your data career?

Its tough to know what to do as a data hero in a company.

There are countless ways to improve things, and all the other senior people have their own ideas and areas of expertise.

Want to increase sales KPIs? So does the Chief Revenue Officer.

Navigating between the two of you how to combine your two visions, and then how to distribute the credit if it works or the blame if it fails is NOT EASY.

Want to improve your four top KPIs? Great! Now you get to do that X4 with all the senior leaders across the company.

Is it surprising that many data leaders don't last long at their jobs?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, it's very clear how to be an amazing sidekick. Your only job is to help the heroes!

How do you decide what to do? Ask the heroes what they need and they will tell you.

Trying to be the hero leads to a lot of impossible to answer questions about what is the goal of a data team and how do you become a great data person.

Life is a lot easier if you give up being the hero and embrace being the sidekick.

And the crazy thing is, when the business expects a hero, and then you come in and make everyone happy by acting like a sidekick, they'll think you're a hero!

(image prompt: "sidekick helping hero, futuristic, comic book style")

Solomon is the Founder and CEO of Delivery Layer. Prior to starting Delivery Layer he ran the data team at Helium 10, a unicorn SaaS startup. Before that he owned the P&L of Nielsen Sports, the global leader in Sports Sponsorship data.

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